This past Friday I “officially” became a member of the tribe, with a Rabbinic conversion (Mikvah, Bris, and Beit Din). One of the last, and most important steps was telling my parents. In fact, I had written my conversion letter last July. With 32 year in the book of life under my belt, ripping the bandaid was an incredibly unpleasant but necessary action. Choosing Judaism is one of the most thoroughly considered decisions of my life and an expression of the truest religious identity I’ve ever known. Though I was fully transparent in almost all aspects of my life, neglecting to tell my entire faith journey was perhaps a sin of omission. The question never arose, but had they asked, I would have been forthright.
In my letter, I took great pains to explain that it was not a rejection of them, a dismissal of my upbringing, and certainly not a critique of Christianity. I knew they were going to be hurt, which was the reason I had waited so long to tell them. Along the way, I had tested the waters by dropping countless hints that were either ignored or dismissed. Comments like “I don’t know how anyone could live without Jesus. Knowing him, and knowing how much Christ loves us, and what he went through for us, how could anyone reject this?”, or concluding that believing nothing was better than believing something other than Christianity had a deeply chilling effect. When we did finally speak, it was an incredibly distressing conversation filled with many stereotypes and misconceptions.
In this post, I intend to clear away confusion and share what I’ve learned with other prospective converts navigating this incredibly choppy transition. While I think there is helpful advice here, I do not presume that any convert’s experience is the same. I can only share my experience and what I believe to be true.
Conversion does not mean religious chauvinism: I cannot stress this enough. Just because I am no longer Christian, it does not mean that I think Judaism is “better”. I can only say that Judaism is more true for me and aligned with my particular value set. Moreover, I would not encourage anyone to convert to Judaism, but would recommend that those curious find reputable sources of information. I am against dogmatic univeralism, because what’s right for me may not be right for you. It also doesn’t mean I am going reject my family’s right to Christian holidays. I have no problem going to Church, I just won’t pray to Jesus or take Communion. There are millions of interfaith families (including my wife’s) in the US alone that manage to negotiate this tension.
Do not try to talk a convert out of their conversion: I would expect to be asked questions about my conversion. The question of “why” is a fair question. It is however not fair to assume that converts are making their decision rashly, or don’t come prepared with proper knowledge. The idea that, had I spent more time reading the New Testament or going to Church, I would been “cured” of my desire to become Jewish is beyond insulting. In a last ditch attempt to stave off my conversion, sending me books on atheists becoming Christian or advising me to read the book of Romans is a very alienating gesture. People either believe or they don’t. Telling me I should have brought this up sooner is fair if having it meant having a calm discussion, but not if staged like an intervention. Dissuading a conversion unfairly assigns blame and removes the agency of the convert. Conversion is solely the decision of the convert.
Religion is not a rational process. It is highly emotional. Asking somehow how or why they reject Jesus is offensive. I am not going to go through a list of reasons debunking the validity of Jesus as the messiah, because that’s offensive for those who believe and frankly counter-productive. Going back to the chauvinism of faith, if someone truly believes someone will go to hell for believing the wrong thing, why not let God be the arbiter and withhold your earthly judgement?
Learning is not a one way street: Just because I am no longer Christian, I am not closed off to learning more about it. However, as the religion I grew up in, I will necessarily know more about Christianity than my parents know about Judaism. As something so important to me, I would expect them to learn about it (or at least make the effort). Whether or not they read them, I will be sending books explaining elements of Judaism. Not for the purpose of converting my parents of course, but so that harmful beliefs and misconceptions that undermine my faith can be dispelled. As a convert, I merely ask that my decision to practice the faith of my conscious be accepted.
Conversions are not done lightly: I would assume that any converts to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc. do not take their conversion lightly either. However, my Jewish conversion required a committed year of living the commandments, celebrating the holidays, going to Temple and finding my place inside the community. In fact, I had been meeting with my Rabbi monthly for nearly a year before even choosing a conversion date. Conversions require at least a Mikvah, a Beit Din, and a (for the circumcised, symbolic) bris. The Mikvah requires a witness, and a male sponsor and my Rabbi were present. My Beit Din was a panel of Rabbis asking questions from my personal statement and overall religious journey. At any point, my Rabbi could have told me to wait and reconsider conversion. In Judaism, conversion (in religious court) is a legally binding agreement and perhaps the most difficult of any religion.
There is no one-size fits all Judaism: According to my rabbis, my conversion entails the same benefits, responsibilities, and legal standing as any other Jew. That said, there is not one mode of Judaism. There is a vast gulf between Reform and Orthodox interpretations, with countless in betweens. The same diversity of thought taken for granted in Christianity exists in Judaism (if not more so). My temple is “classical” Reform, and their services didn’t feel that foreign to me, as a former Lutheran. At services, some choose to wear the tallit and kippah, but many don’t. Some people keep kosher. Some people keep two sets of dishes. Others have no problem eating a cheeseburger or some bacon-wrapped scallops. Another Reform temple may have larger portions of the service in Hebrew. Congregations may be more or less politically motivated, engaging in social justice projects. Congregations may be more or less accepting of interfaith relationships and families. Judaism is a big tent religion, and in the Reform movement at least – my Judaism is not greater or lesser than anyone else’s. Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Conservative strains likewise have many variants and assuming monochromatic faith is completely inaccurate. If anything, Judaism challenges the status quo and in doing so, has remained deeply relevant.
Taking a Hebrew Name: My birth name is Matthew, which is Hebrew in origin (however a very Christian name). Because of this, my mom was incredibly offended at the idea of me receiving a Hebrew name without at all considering the actual implications. My Hebrew does not supersede my legal name, it coexists. It is an identifier as a member of the Jewish people, a sacred name not to be confused with my secular identity. Every Jew receives a Jewish name distinct from his or her legal name. This is done in Greek Orthodox Christianity as well, receiving a name within the church upon Baptism. As a convert, I have the unique ability to choose my name. Doing so was a powerful experience and an incredible honor. Taking a Jewish name doesn’t negate the given name from my parents, and so it’s not like changing a last name in marriage.
Women’s Roles in Judaism: I was perhaps most troubled by my mom’s assertion that women somehow have less rights in Judaism than Christianity. Somehow, Judaism wouldn’t jive with my wife’s extremely passionate activism in pursuit of woman’s equality. Just as there can be female pastors in ELCA Lutheranism, yet Catholicism still bars women from the Priesthood, views towards women diverge greatly. My temple for example has a female rabbi. There is no division between gender. The President of the Congregation is a woman. The Conservative branch also has women rabbis. Even in Orthodox Judaism, there are greater roles for women than in year’s past– and a growing movement to allow female Rabbis. Certainly in the Reform Movement, views towards women and sexual minorities are far more progressive than many Christian denominations. This is not a criticism of Christianity, it is simply a fact.
Judaism is not a religion of passivity: Christianity and Islam are religions that require the concept of “Original Sin” to answer why bad things happen to good people. Judaism takes a different approach. We are not consigned to fate. We are agents possessing our own will with our own responsibility, sharing in the act of creation with God. Humans are not inherently evil, but their actions determine their virtue. And because the act of creation is never complete, our humanity is both a blessing and a burden. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “In creating humanity, God empowers humanity. To be a Jewish child is to learn how to question. In the Haggadah (the guide for the Passover Seder), the child who has not learned to ask is the lowest, not the highest stage of development…It is a faith in which God invites human beings to partners in the work of redemption.” In other words, unquestioning obedience or passivity in the face of injustice is inherently the opposite of Judaism.
In almost all cases, taking on a new faith is not a rejection of one’s past life, family, or values. Making the choice to convert is an incredibly difficult decision, yet too often is the target of anger or disgust. It is a decision that should merit tolerance and respect. I hope my post can help potential converts find their own voice.